four and a half hours by bus from La Paz is the hiker's paradise of
Sorata. The road to
Sorata takes you up over the lip of the great land depression of La
Paz and onto the high altiplano – a mind boggling 14,000 foot flat
expanse that stretches across much of northern Bolivia.
Marking the edge of the Altiplano is the massive snow-capped
Cordillera Real mountain range whose jagged blade cuts the high plain
from the lower, steamy Yungas to the East (where Coroico sits).
The road winds around the East edge of bright blue lake
Titicaca before climbing up the foothills of the Cordillera Real and
plunging down nearly 4,000 over several miles of winding, pothole
landmines and a thick carpet of
beige dust to the palm-tree and flowerbed plaza of sleepy Sorata.
town of Sorata hugs the side of a large hill in the shadow of the 21,000 foot Illampu and
peaks. One or both of
these peaks is visible looming over the town to the South from
most places in town.
hiking party consisted of three Austrians from Linz; Didi, Andy, and
Gaby. Our goal: reach the highest altitude any of us had ever been
too – Laguna Glacial (or Lichi-Khota ‘milky-white lake’ in
Aymara) at 5,130 meters. After
much discussion with everyone from professional guides in Sorata to
other hikers just returned from the mountain, we decided to spend both
of the nights of our
trek at Laguna Chillata (or Khotapata “high lake” in
Aymara) at 4,200 meters and go there-and-back to the high
Laguna Glacial during day two.
got a late start after a hearty breakfast of Goulash and Meusli in
Sorata’s gringo-oriented Altai restaurant (the owner Roxanne has a
great collection of world music to set the ambiance) and headed
upwards out of Sorata towards the towering twin-peaks framing the
glacial lake that was our ultimate goal. Half an hour outside of
Sorata we had an uninterrupted view of the two peaks and the saddle
between them. In about
six hours of walking we were safely lost in the mountains about 4
kilometers from our first night camp spot. Luckily, as we argued amongst ourselves about which way to go,
along came American Tom and British Charlie with a young local guide
Pedro. Tom and Charlie
were also headed for Laguna Chillata (Khotapata) and had noticed their error when they found themselves near a
mine shows on their map as about two hours walk off course.
Their guide, fourteen-year-old Pedro, confidently walked past
in his soccer tee-shirt and sandals up the mountain towards the lake
with his charges and now also our party in tow. Within about
one hour we were all safely huddled shivering around
Chillata heating water and discussing terms with Pedro for
employing his expert services the following day.
He agreed to guide
six of us up to Laguna Glacial (Lichikhota) for about US $1
next morning was brilliantly sunny and by 10 AM we were steadily
trudging up the mountain towards our first landmark: the high pass (la
apacheta). After a
breathless siesta on the windy pass we continued on along the stark
towards Titisani mine, a stark talus slope spilling out of the
increasingly jagged and rocky landscape around us.
All around us you could see the Earth in action as rocks of different colors and
sharpness jutted out of the slopes like fingers pointing to the
snowy massif towering above. After
several breathless hours of climbing in the thin air we arrived near
the edge of the 1.5 mile wide saddle between the two peaks. Thinking back to my experience near the same altitude on the
Choro trek I could not help but observe how much harder it is to go UP
at this altitude than DOWN. When we finally moved up over the
crest into the saddle's starkly white and gray
world (devoid of plant life other than green, red and
white lichen) we got our first look at the milky blue glacial
lake shining in the midday sun..
We had reached our goal. We
sat and ate a quick lunch, snapped some photos of the glacier, and
weakly observed that it was recommendable to head down as soon as
possible to avoid altitude sickness. We were all so disoriented that we forgot to look at what
makes this spot so famous: the ability to see from one spot both the
immense blueness of Lake Titicaca and the broad undulating jungle of
the Yungas at the edge of the Amazon.
We all observed bright blue lake Titicaca on the
way up but I
do not think anyone even thought to look over at the Yungas once we
were on top. On the way
down I walked ahead with Pedro and he thought me some taboo words in
Aymara. Hearing me repeat
these words in combination with some of the adjectives I had already
learned had both of us in fits of laughter – this is just the kind
of potty-humor that gets me in stitches and Pedro (due to his age – I
don't have that excuse) was on the same wavelength..
When we got back to camp we thanked Pedro for his work as guide
and he departed for home. Before
he left he requested that I provide him with a picture of him
| that I
had taken at Laguna Glacial – I think he wanted to use this picture
to break into the guiding business back in Sorata.
on the morning of the third day, I woke up and walked around Laguna
Chillata looking for some pre-Inca ruins Roxanne (the co-owner of
Altai) had told us about. At
the opposite end of the lake from where we camped a huge triangular
mountain just out of the ground pointing sharply towards Janq´uma´s
peak. As I approached the
walled base of this mountain it became evident
| that it was covered
with squat ruins hanging precariously on the sharply inclined slope.
In the early morning twilight frost I slowly worked my way up
the slope to the top, grabbing tufts of long, spiky grass for safety
as I went. The whole peak
appeared to be some sort of large altar – the previous inhabitants
possibly having taken advantage of this natural feature pointing
straight at snowy Janq´uma to honor the natural forces around them. Some archeologists theorize that at the time these ruins were
built the glacier that now crouches high above (and out of sight) at
the edge of Laguna Glacial once extended all the way down to just
below where I was standing. I
decided to wait for the sunrise to reach this spot and took this
opportunity to do some Yoga and stretching. When I later
descended to meet up with my somewhat frustrated
hiking party (I had not told them where I was going and I was gone for
almost two hours!) I found Tom and Charlie were ready to go and had chosen
their route. They went
ahead and my party waited for me to finish packing. Tom and Charlie went down the way we had come up and our party
chose to head directly down the wide sweeping fields tilting towards
Sorata on the horizon. On
the way down we passed bleating flocks of sheep, lazily munching cows,
small adobe buildings baking in the sun, and a traditionally dressed
elderly couple leading three shaggy donkeysalong the path.
PM found us sitting in the town plaza in Altai eating Goulash when Tom
and Charlie straggled in the door looking
surprised and exhausted. We all celebrated by going out that night to the town center to
try each of the six burger stands on the plaza (to see which one of
the ladies put together the best thin patty and greasy papas combo).
Note: this is about as good as the nightlife gets in a town
where most travelers are getting to bed early to gear up for the next
Lesson Number 3
hora hesa? – What time is it
tunc hora hewa – It is nine o'clock
a-ut hito – I am hungry
munta – I am thirsty
nehwa? – Do you have a place I can stay for the night?
tacuasca… – I am looking for...
Khota-kh Hiwakiwa – Glacier Lake (Lichi Khota) is
cas takiha Sorata? – Where is the path to Sorata?
ikeskiwa – Jacinto is sleeping
hiwata – Jacinto is dead